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Tilikum Teaches



“(The Creator told us) to watch the natural things; that is where we will learn how God wants us to live.”

Matthew King

Sometimes I go to movies because I ought to, even if I dread it a bit. Such was the case with “Blackfish,” a documentary about Tilikum, the orca killer whale, produced by Gabriella Cowperthwaite.

Tilikum killed trainer Dawn Brancheau at SeaWorld in 2010, and this story about his life is very timely. It raises awareness about the terrible wrong we do in keeping creatures in captivity for our entertainment and edification, and it arrived in town just as I finished reading the chapter on nature and world religions in Create Your Own Religion by David Bolelli. (See previous post.) 

Bolelli began his chapter by pointing out the broad belief that humans are superior to all creatures because only we have been made in “God’s image.” And then we have the instructions to Adam and Eve in Genesis to “subdue” nature and to exercise “dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.” 

The outworking of those instructions has been pretty catastrophic; because the fish populations are collapsing, the air is foul, and every day fewer and fewer creatures are moving on the earth as one species after another becomes extinct. Time to rethink. 

Bolelli points to the advantages of the Animistic practices of Zen Buddhists and American Indians among others. These express the belief that “animals, plants, rivers, mountains, and all other natural forces are spiritually alive no more and no less than human beings.” 

Some of us may have difficulty embracing that idea in whole; but in the case of animals, the movie about Tilikum certainly makes a powerful case. This documentary also reveals another way in which the drive for corporate profit, as in SeaWorld, is damaging the natural world. 

Tilikum was taken from his mother in 1992 at the age of two, which would have been a devastating thing to them both. In the wild, offspring stay with the mother their entire lives, which may last 100 years for females and 65 or so for males. In captivity, the lifespan drops down to about 30 and 20 years respectively. 

A neuroscientist spoke about the Orca brain, which is much more advanced than ours in one respect. The section that has to do with emotional life and sense of self and community is much larger than ours relative to body size. Orcas are highly intelligent, inquisitive, and cooperative, and they have never been known to attack a human in the wild. With vast territory to explore, there is also virtually no evidence that they are aggressive with each other. 

Tilikum’s captivity at SeaLand, a small defunct resort in Washington state, began brutally. The pool in which he performed for audiences was small, and he was locked up in a dark, 20 x 30-foot tank for more than 12 hours a day. When SeaLand closed, and after a female trainer may have been drowned by Tilikum, SeaWorld bought him. 

Circumstances improved for Tilikum, but one can tell that his life as a performer, even among trainers who clearly loved and even revered him, could not mitigate the trauma of living in regimented captivity and having been wrenched from his pod at an early age. The neuroscientist said that an orca’s sense of self is distributed among the members of its community, and Tilikum lost his. 

Even though a reviewer warned that the movie might be difficult to watch, I was fascinated and moved in a very positive way. There are numerous clips from television and other cameras as well as interviews with former trainers, and every moment seemed dramatic in terms of action or the emotion on screen. 

I have to say that I was especially touched by the masculine element. For one thing, of course, Tilikum is male, and his captivity seems especially wrenching for that reason. In addition, his collapsed dorsal, which occurs in only 1% of wild males, is vivid evidence of harm done. 

Tilikum Performing

He is exploited for profit, and his sperm is worth millions of dollars. In spite of the fact that he is now known to be dangerous, it has been collected and used to breed 64% of the male orcas at SeaWorld. His offspring are also exported to other venues. He does not actually mate, his sperm is just collected and distributed.

The interviews with men were also especially affecting. They included a fishermen who captured baby orcas, an OSHA employee, a scientist, and former trainers at SeaWorld. Regret, dismay, shock, and grief all register in voices that sometimes falter and in eyes that brim with tears. 

As the result of a lawsuit by OSHA, which SeaWorld is protesting, trainers no longer work with orcas in the absence of protective barriers. The moment in which Dawn Brancheau was killed may have been the result of a perfect storm of mishaps, but Tilikum had probably become a ticking time bomb that would inevitably go off. SeaWorld claims that Dawn was responsible. 

Tilikum still performs once a day, just swimming up to beach himself on a ledge. That’s it. The rest of the time he hangs suspended lifelelssly in his tank. One of the trainers commented that the day will come when we realize that the way Tilikum and other orcas have been treated is barbaric. 

That made me think about a statement that appeared in the book on the Gospel of Mary that I wrote about earlier. (See “Mary Magdalene Revisited.”) The author commented that the teachings of Jesus intended to teach his followers what it means to be “fully human.” 

I have to say that I felt more human as I left the theater after seeing “Blackfish.” I knew that in some way I would never be the same, and the people around me seemed similarly affected. Art can be very powerful in this respect, and I wonder if religion ever can also. 

Maybe it can’t, but the point of the Bolelli book is that each of us can do this work on our own. The author includes a helpful quote from a tribal elder named Matthew King: “He (the white man) has his Bible, but to us the hills and the sky and the water make our Bible. That is what the Creator told us, to watch the natural things; that is where we will learn how God wants us to live.”

4 Responses to “Tilikum Teaches”

  1. Melanie Gibson

    thank you for your article. I recently wrote one myself on my professional blog. I used your image and credited your blog. If you would like to check it out you can head to my site. If you do not approve of me using the photo, please let me know and I can edit.


  2. Lynn

    Long ago when communications were almost nonexistent and there was no video, zoos and displays of taxidermied animals were considered educational, a good way to sensitize people to the need to appreciate and protect these animals. Those days are gone. We should stop holding them captive, especially huge creatures that have ranges of hundreds to thousands of miles.

    • celeryellen

      Many thanks for your comment, Lynn. Just back from Marfa with Kate, and we saw so many wide, open spaces. Really makes you understand what some of the creatures are missing.

  3. Kate

    Makes one want to go rescue all of the animals in captivity. No made made environment can replace the natural one. Of course, sad to say, some species now only exist in captivity, but how good can that be?